Revolutionary to Reactionary:

                            (UP CURSOR Lecture, Aug 25 2007)


The Soul of a New Machine:

The Soul of a New Machine is a non-fiction book, written by Tracy Kidder (who has written several studies of how real-life actually works). Published in 1981,  it won both a Pulitzer Prize and an American Book Award. The book chronicles the true story of a computer design team racing to complete a next generation computer design under a blistering schedule and tremendous pressure. Evan Ratliff revisted key players for WIRED Magazine.

Excerpts from: O, Engineers! By Evan Ratliff:

<A Cautionary Tale>

.............Holberger still describes the Eagle drama in terms of an old Western, as he did to Kidder 20 years ago. "I felt like the team members were gunfighters who were brought into town to solve some problem," he says. "They shot the place up, and they solved the problem. And then the town had to figure out what to do with them afterward. Which was mostly to get rid of them." ..............

...............When Data General ran the Eagle gunslingers out of town, most of them took different routes to a similar destination: the next project. Having successfully created a machine - seen it through from bare wires and circuits to working computer - they were ready to sign up and do it again. Even after the burnout and the lack of recognition at DG, they left seeking projects as intense, if not more intense, than Eagle. They often found them. And for all the gruffness of West's management style, none of the Eagle vets look back on the project with anything but fond memories..............

..........."I had high hopes for a management career," says Carl Alsing, now 57. "The hope was that I could leverage my experience and judgment. That was disappointing, because at the lower levels of management where I ended up, whatever companies said they wanted me to do, they really wanted me to put out fires in the current product and delay any kind of innovation."........ <>

Unfortunately, I don't have access to an on-line text of the book  -but I distinctly remember that towards the end Kidder specifically asks How did such a revolutionary apparatus become so reactionary?.

(Relevant text fragments are now here: Going To The Fair)
(This lead me to read Leon Bagrit: The Age of Automation)


A Deficiency of Language:

Unfortunately, the real problem appears to be that there is no readily available, practical, language in which the problem can easily be investigated and answered. I'm not even sure in which domain one should look: Is it a personal, subjective, problem, something hidden in the nature of society and culture -is it inherent in the nature of mechanical computing -or is it a complex interaction between several phenomena?

Perhaps the real question is: How did this apparent lack of expressive and explanatory  language come about?

Towards a Digital Industrial Archeology?

We might find an answer to Kidder's question by tracing the history of digital technology through
Digital Industrial Archeology. However, we are also very likely to get lost in maze of complex methodological problems and historical power struggles. Although a wide range of fascinating material is now being collected, at present, I personally don't have the methodology to unlock the secrets hidden within historical accounts.

How does one evaluate the various machines and processes that are now obsolete and forgotten -and how does one compare them to the technologies that have survived. or evolved, into current practices?

Towards a Theory of Computer Science?

If finding a useful historical perspective proves to be difficult, then perhaps we could try a more direct theoretical approach. Unfortunately, the theoretical approach seems to run into problems similar to those which rise out of the historical approach. There are many Computational Models. From Wikipedia <> we learn that Computation is a general term for any type of information processing that can be represented mathematically. This includes phenomena ranging from simple calculations to human thinking.

One wonders if such a definition represents a mathematical limitation to any theory of computation -or if a broad theory of computation would perhaps, in practice, reveal serious limitations in the theory and practice of mathematics. <Regarding Algorithms>

A Personal Perspective:

Kidder's question fits in with my own experience: As a young art student, I became fascinated by the possibility of the computer as a special kind of "universe" which was outside my normal range of experience. A universe which I hoped would (perhaps paradoxically) provide some useful insight into my own (human) condition. Now I'm much older and more experienced, I still consider this idea valid. What saddens me most is the apparent lack of social and professional understanding for this position.

We now seem to be in a somewhat paradoxical situation: Computing appears to involve the construction and implementation of models of computations -and yet commercial pragmatism, coupled with a cultural bias that often sees art and culture as being opposed to technology and science, has seemingly caused a destructive dissonance between theory and practice.

<Back to the Future>


The schizophrenic nature of Programming and Automation:

If "computation" is seen as being primarily concerned with the manipulation of symbols, then there are perhaps three main classes (or levels) of processing:

i.  Open        (creative cognition):
  -Operating outside the boundary of current knowledge to extend current limits.

ii. Closed       (automated procedure):
  -Operating within the bounds of current knowledge with predictable results.

iii. Boundary (Predictive Calculus):
  -Operating within the bounds of current knowledge but with  unknown results.

If one assumes that programming has not been automated (by reducing it to the simple task of "coding" an existing algorithm into a specific programming language) -then the act of constructing an automated process can be seen as an act of creative cognition: The creation of a functioning automated model involves an investigation into (and an interweaving of) the theoretical and practical aspects of the process itself -plus both the medium and the environment that is being modeled as well as those in which it is to be modeled. The creative analysis involved in programming requires, and therefore creates, understanding -and thus gives the power of knowledge to the programmer. Programming is subversive and revolutionary!

However, the mechanical use of an automated tool is specifically designed to remove and even isolate the user from the practical considerations that underly the processes involved. Automation is inherently reactionary and disenfranchising!

Perhaps the practical implementation of automation is actually destroying the conceptual model making process that underlies both social intelligence and good programming!


A Final Warning!

It seems to me that the following major factors have contributed to the evolution of the computer from a revolutionary to a reactionary machine:
Personal Ego and Ambition
The pride which allows individuals to be exploited in socially and personally damaging ways simply to prove themselves -even when being poorly treated
Bad Human Management
The apparent inability of society and organizations to use creative problem solvers creatively and effectively
Bad Strategic Planning
A failure of organizations to find a strategic model that will survive technological innovation and fickle markets
Perhaps the common link is a lack of respect for high level, abstract, models -coupled to a lack of social discourse which could create such models.

There is something about the digital technology business that reminds me of the myth of Cronus eating his children. Please, don't let it eat you!

Please, think very carefully about the systems that you are creating and implementing.

<Society Art Technology Project>
<The Person>
<The Work>
<Other Texts>

Trevor Batten,
<trevor at>
Manila, Aug 2007